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The RV Odyssey sails past Male - the capitol of the Maldives. The Maldives is the world's flattest country with no natural land higher than 2.4 meters.
Photo: Chris Johnson

February 17, 2004
"Losing the Maldives"
  Real Audio

This is Roger Payne, glad (oh so glad) to be back aboard the Odyssey after 18 months ashore. This time I am in the Indian Ocean off the Maldive Islands, ten time zones east of, and 110 degrees hotter than, my home in Vermont (where, when I left the temperature stood at 20 degrees below zero- Farenheit).

The Maldives is a sovereign nation occupying a series of magnificent coral atolls to the southwest of India. It is famed for the beauty of its reefs, and for its friendly treatment of tourists. Within diplomatic and conservation circles Maldivians are known for their efforts to increase human concern about global warming. The reason for their concern is obvious when you first arrive here: the highest natural ground in the nation is six feet above sea level. This means that if global warming results in the predicted sea level rises, the ocean will soon inundate the entire nation and wipe it off the globe.

To diminish this possibility, the Maldivian people have been pushing hard to get other nations to ratify the Kyoto protocol which helps limit human production of CO2- a major greenhouse gas. A main concerns of these islanders is the analyses of air bubbles in Antarctic ice cores, which show that CO2 levels are higher now than at any time in the past 420,000 years. Other lines of evidence indicate that the earth is currently warming at a faster rate than has occurred in 100 million years. Like it or not, we are involved in a major global experiment in planet heating. CO2 concentration is also known to be increasing at an accelerating rate. A distinguished group of scientists, convened to consider this problem, has concluded that the CO2 released by the last 100 years of the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for much of the observed global temperature rise.

In spite of the evidence that humans have caused much of the current CO2 increase the US president has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol on grounds that to do so would be "economically crippling"- a strange conclusion, given that an undiminished continuation of global warming can absolutely be relied upon to be "economically crippling."

The current administration seems unaware that neither Americans nor anyone else is in a position to tell the environment to stand aside for human progress. The environment gets out of the way of no one and no thing. It is the environment that controls the economy, not the other way around. Nature responds to Natural laws, not human laws, and Natural laws are not some loose set of rules open to negotiation. They are a brutally rigid set of inflexible rules whose power is demonstrated by the control they have exerted over millions of species of plants and animals, for billions of years.

Natural laws have no concern whatever for human preferences. They will never adapt to our needs- not even once. It will always have to be we who adapt to them- and we must do so every time or we, as a species, will die the death of fools.

It is absurd to spend nothing trying to solve environmental problems because we fear that doing so will slow the growth of our economy. That's like refusing to invest in the cost of putting out a forest fire that is threatening your house, because you want to save your money to build a new porch.

Unless we start spending the time and the money to reduce our contribution to global warming the problem may diminish not just our houses, but our options and our lives, and eventually the options and the lives of our children. Mr. Bush made the announcement that he would not sign the Kyoto Protocol at a time when this country had tax revenue surpluses of unmatched largesse. Prudence would have caused a wise leader to invoke the precautionary principle, particularly at a time when his treasury could afford to invest in some precaution.

Meanwhile, we can't tell the environment to wait while we attend to the economy. The monolithic indifference of the environment to our little dilemmas is total. No, it is we who must change our economy until it is in harmony with Natural laws. And that means we must do everything we do sustainably, never losing sight of the fact that our economy is, as is often pointed out, a wholly owned subsidiary of Nature- and that Nature can and will shut down our economy whenever it likes.

Natural laws are vitally important insights that Science can offer society. But unfortunately, the laws themselves are not matters for debate- they are inherent truths. Scientists didn't invent them, they just discovered they were there, underlying all life.

They include such simple truths as:

  • No species living in a closed system such as ours can continue to expand its population indefinitely.
  • The life of every species including humans is dependent on the lives of many other species.
  • All life, including human life, is a product of evolution, which favors selfish behavior. Selfish behavior is an advantage until a species dominates its closed system whereupon it can become fatal.
  • If an organism produces any product that cannot be broken into inert molecular components by some natural cycle, or utilized by another organism, the product will accumulate and damage the ecosystem of which it is a part.
  • All species require some degree of predictability and stability in the physical environment in which they live. Etc.

For the record Humanity is currently out of step with every one of the above natural laws.

As author Bill McKibben said when speaking to an audience of corporate executives: "The laws of Congress and the laws of physics have grown increasingly divergent, and the laws of physics are not likely to yield."

Wendell Berry makes a similar point: "We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits."

To achieve this we need leaders who will get solidly behind the development of technologies that are good for the world and therefore good for us.

So how bad is the problem that Maldivians already face? Global warming is said to be raising the earth's temperatures faster than anything that has occurred in the past 10,000 years, and Climate models predict that temperatures in this century will break a 10,000 year record.

Measurements of the annual rise of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere since 1958 show that the rate at which CO2 is increasing is not constant, but accelerating. So, in spite of the widespread growing awareness of global warming and all of the talk since the first Earth Day in 1970, CO2 pollution is not only increasing every year- but the rate at which it is increasing is getting worse every year.

In other words, whatever problems may be being caused by CO2 are getting worse at an accelerating rate. (Problems that behave this way are often said to be 'spinning out of control'.) Should that concern us? Is this a good time not to sign the Kyoto Protocol even though it is very mild medicine- and was designed more to get nations to buy into a political structure they could later change to actually solve the CO2 problem?

But, you say, 84 other nations have already signed the Kyoto Protocol: does it really matter if the US signs on too- after all we are just one more nation. What could it matter if we signed on and made the total 85 nations? Well, the reason it would matter is because we are the biggest CO2 polluter on earth. Yes, our beloved country, yours and mine, is responsible for 36.1 percent of all of the CO2 released into the atmosphere by all of humanity. Just to get calibrated here: the combined total CO2 production of all 84 countries that have already ratified the Protocol is only 37.1%-just 1% more than what we produce all by ourselves. Which means that lowering our CO2 emissions would make more difference than getting all but one of the 84 countries that have ratified the protocol to lower theirs by the same amount. So it's us who are the problem. As Pogo said: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

It is more important to start bringing our CO2 production under control than it is for any other nation to achieve the same thing. But there is something else that would be achieved if the US ratified the Kyoto Protocol- it would put the Protocol into effect, whereupon all the nations that have already ratified it would be required to start abiding by the Protocol. The reason this is so is because the terms of the Protocol state that it will only go into effect once the total emissions of the nations that ratify it represents 55% of the world's total CO2 emissions. But as I have said the current total is only at 37.1% of total emissions. If the US signed, the total would reach 73.2%- well over what is needed to bring the Kyoto treaty into effect.

So Bush's decision may have been good for generating campaign contributions from the energy industry, but it not only fails to support the treaty it kills it, since our failure to sign blocks it from going into effect. And that situation is not likely to change soon: the total CO2 emissions of the countries that have joined since the Bush announcement are less than 1% of the world's total. It is true that there are already various excellent steps being taken to reduce CO2 emissions, particularly in Europe, but no one is predicting that they are nearly enough to get CO2 emissions to stop accelerating and just climb straight. They are also way less than is needed to level those emissions out, and they are way, way less than what is needed to cause CO2 levels to start falling.

But it is not until they do start falling that the people of the Maldives can have faith in a future for their nation, or have confidence in the stability of their investments and believe that their homes will not be inundated, and their country drowned by the sea. In other words, it is only when CO2 levels start falling that the Maldivians will no longer feel threatened by the actions of people living ten time zones to the west of them, and at temperatures 110 degrees colder than they enjoy in this, their beloved country.

  • Links:
    • Read the Odyssey Log where the crew reported how Global warming is affecting the island nation of Kiribati.

    2002 Written by Roger Payne

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